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Where I Was From
Cover of Where I Was From
Where I Was From
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In this moving and insightful book, Didion reassesses parts of her life, her work, her history, and ours. A native Californian, Didion applies her scalpel-like intelligence to the state’s ethic of ruthless self-sufficiency in order to examine that ethic’s often tenuous relationship to reality.

Combining history and reportage, memoir and literary criticism, Where I Was From explores California’s romances with land and water; its unacknowledged debts to railroads, aerospace, and big government; the disjunction between its code of individualism and its fetish for prisons.
Whether she is writing about her pioneer ancestors or privileged sexual predators, robber barons or writers (not excluding herself), Didion is an unparalleled observer, and this book is at once intellectually provocative and deeply personal.

In this moving and insightful book, Didion reassesses parts of her life, her work, her history, and ours. A native Californian, Didion applies her scalpel-like intelligence to the state’s ethic of ruthless self-sufficiency in order to examine that ethic’s often tenuous relationship to reality.

Combining history and reportage, memoir and literary criticism, Where I Was From explores California’s romances with land and water; its unacknowledged debts to railroads, aerospace, and big government; the disjunction between its code of individualism and its fetish for prisons.
Whether she is writing about her pioneer ancestors or privileged sexual predators, robber barons or writers (not excluding herself), Didion is an unparalleled observer, and this book is at once intellectually provocative and deeply personal.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One 1

    My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Scott was born in 1766, grew up on the Virginia and Carolina frontiers, at age sixteen married an eighteen-year-old veteran of the Revolution and the Cherokee expeditions named Benjamin Hardin IV, moved with him into Tennessee and Kentucky and died on still another frontier, the Oil Trough Bottom on the south bank of the White River in what is now Arkansas but was then Missouri Territory. Elizabeth Scott Hardin was remembered to have hidden in a cave with her children (there were said to have been eleven, only eight of which got recorded) during Indian fighting, and to have been so strong a swimmer that she could ford a river in flood with an infant in her arms. Either in her defense or for reasons of his own, her husband was said to have killed, not counting English soldiers or Cherokees, ten men. This may be true or it may be, in a local oral tradition inclined to stories that turn on decisive gestures, embroidery. I have it on the word of a cousin who researched the matter that the husband, our great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, "appears in the standard printed histories of Arkansas as 'Old Colonel Ben Hardin, the hero of so many Indian wars.'" Elizabeth Scott Hardin had bright blue eyes and sick headaches. The White River on which she lived was the same White River on which, a century and a half later, James McDougal would locate his failed Whitewater development. This is a country at some level not as big as we like to say it is.

    I know nothing else about Elizabeth Scott Hardin, but I have her recipe for corn bread, and also for India relish: her granddaughter brought these recipes west in 1846, traveling with the Donner-Reed party as far as the Humboldt Sink, then cutting north for Oregon, where her husband, the Reverend Josephus Adamson Cornwall, was determined to be the first Cumberland Presbyterian circuit rider in what was then called Oregon country. Because that granddaughter, Nancy Hardin Cornwall, was my great-great-great-grandmother, I have, besides her recipes, a piece of applique she made on the crossing. This applique, green and red calico on a muslin field, hangs now in my dining room in New York and hung before that in the living room of a house I had on the Pacific Ocean.

    I also have a photograph of the stone marker placed on the site of the cabin in which Nancy Hardin Cornwall and her family, still short of their destination in the Willamette Valley but unable to get their wagons through a steep defile on the Umpqua River without abandoning Josephus Cornwall's books (this option seems to have presented itself only to his daughters), spent the winter of 1846-47. "Dedicated to the memory of Rev. J.A. Cornwall and family," the engraving on the marker reads. "They built the first immigrant cabin in Douglas County near this site, hence the name Cabin Creek. The family wintered here in 1846-1847, were saved from extreme want by Israel Stoley, a nephew who was a good hunter. The Indians were friendly. The Cornwalls traveled part way westward with the ill-fated Donner Party."

    My mother was sent the photograph of this marker by her mother's cousin Oliver Huston, a family historian so ardent that as recently as 1957 he was alerting descendants to "an occasion which no heir should miss," the presentation to the Pacific University Museum of, among other artifacts, "the old potato masher which the Cornwall family brought across the plains in 1846." The letter continued: "By this procedure, such items can then be seen by all Geiger and Cornwall heirs at any time in the future by simply visiting the Museum." I have not...
About the Author-
  • Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York. She is the author of five novels and six previous books of nonfiction: Political Fictions, After Henry, Miami, Salvador, The White Album, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

    Joan Didion's Political Fictions, The Last Thing He Wanted, After Henry, Miami, Democracy, Salvador, A Book of Common Prayer, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Run River are available in Vintage paperback.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from June 30, 2003
    California comes under Didion's captivating, merciless microscope in her controversial look at the greed, acquisitiveness and wasteful extravagance lurking beneath the state's eternal sunshine. In admirably lean, piercing prose, she describes her ancestors, women who could shoot, handle stock and shake snakes from their boots every morning. These pioneers had lived through an arduous crossing far removed from the noble odysseys chronicled by California mythmakers and arrived in wrecked wagons, facing desolation and death. Didion dramatically highlights the gap between California's rosy notion of itself as a land that stood for individual entrepreneurship, and the reality of growing government control and reliance on federal money. As a Sacramento native now living in New York, she conveys the tension of loving an area that's also disappointed her. She utilizes the 1993 Spur Posse scandal, in which teenage boys in Southern California slept with as many girls as possible and then regarded them as notches on their gun, to portray the spiritual vacancy of young Californian men, particularly in light of an overindulgent public attitude that downplayed their moral callousness. Didion cites cozy, pastel paintings by artists like Thomas Kinkade as contributing to the hazily romantic view of a state that treated foreigners early in its history with vicious bigotry, underrated education's importance and committed disturbed citizens to institutions on unacceptably flimsy evidence of their mental state. Throughout, Didion digs deep to find the "point" of California. Many will find her conclusions inflammatory and may rise to California's defense, but the book is a remarkable document precisely because of its power to trigger a national debate that can heighten awareness and improve conditions on the West Coast and throughout the country.

  • Harper's

    "Compelling. . . . A love song to the place where her family has lived for generations, but a love song full of questions and doubts." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times"An arresting amalgam of memoir and historical timeline. . . . Exquisitely crafted, as subtle as the slow waking from a pleasant dream." --The Baltimore Sun"One beautiful sentence follows another. . . . This is a book about history, about what we learn from genealogy and history books, novels and old newspapers, and how we square all that with what we see around us. . . . Didion has remained a clearheaded and original writer all her long life." --Malcolm Jones, Newsweek"Succinct and quite beautiful. . . . Its rewards are many. If anyone needs further confirmation that she is one of the finest essayists currently at work, this book will nail it." --The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer"One of the most recognizable--and brilliant--literary styles to emerge in America during the past four decades. . . . [Didion is] a great American writer." --The New York Times Book Review "Didion has written a brave little book . . . a fine book that must be read with as much care it was written. . . . [Didion is] an implacably honest writer." --Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post"Valediction and elegy alike, Where I Was From is a storm-tossed book. Its history is dense . . . its prose sharp, direct and chiseled." --The Los Angeles Times Book Review"Eloquent, spare, and rendered without sentiment." --Boston Globe"[Didion is] a latter-day Walt Whitman, singing of America by singing of herself." --Slate.com "Joan Didion is a brilliant explicator of the American political and cultural consciousness." --Rocky Mountain News"Many of us have tried, and failed, to master [Didion's] gift for the single ordinary deflating word, the word that spins an otherwise flat sentence through five degrees of irony. But her sentences could only be hers." --Michael Gorra, Chicago Tribune"[A] fascinating, informative, obscure--and yes, moving--little book." --San Jose Mercury News"A bracing mix of personal and public history." --Benjamin Kunkel, Newsday"Odd, elliptical and ultimately revealing. . . . Didion discovers the exact locus where geography and personal journey intersect, and has produced a work as compelling and enigmatic as its subjects." --Time Out New York"Where I Was From is a beautifully written and intensely personal tome. . . . One of the country's most intelligent writers . . . Ms. Didion's prose is like a razor cutting straight to the bone." --New York Sun"[Didion's] appraisal is cool, her eye is sharp, and her turn of phrase is wicked." --Time"How odd that bad news can be so much fun to read. Her essays are as sinewy as her novels, written in the same ice-pick/laser-beam prose."

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